Motherhood didn’t used to be a choice

Prescribing birth control for unmarried women was not legal in the United States until 1972, the year I lost my virginity and started taking birth control pills. It only became legal for married couples as I was entering high school in 1965. When Roe V. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, I was 21.

A lot of things were different when I was growing up. In 1974, the year I married my first husband, Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Before that, it was difficult for women to secure credit cards or loans or buy their own homes. Can you imagine that now? What do you mean I can’t have a credit card in my own name?

I know most readers here are considerably younger than I am. In your lives, birth control and abortion have always been legal. As for women being able to run their own financial lives, how could it be any other way? But it was. Consider this: We weren’t even allowed to wear slacks or jeans when I was in school, only skirts. With pantyhose.

I’m reading a new book titled All the Single Ladies. Author Rebecca Traister takes us through the history of the women’s movement and the stories of a persistent percentage of women who choose independence rather than be bound by marriage. It’s heavy reading but fascinating. I will tell you more about it when I finish the book. I want to talk about people who prefer independent lives over married life, but what I have read so far sure makes me think about how things have changed.

Through most of history, women have not been considered equal to men, and they have not had the same rights as men. Traister quotes so-called experts from the 19th century who maintained our brains were not as big as men’s brains and who also said that if we stressed our brains doing jobs not suited to women we would damage our reproductive organs. Craziness, right? But women as recently as my mother’s generation truly saw few other choices in life besides being wives and mothers. Even when I came of age, I expected every relationship to turn into marriage and that would lead to having children. That’s what everybody did. I just wanted to be a writer, too. I’d do it while the kids were at school.

When women found themselves pregnant before marriage, it was a scandal. They had to get married in a hurry or go off somewhere to give birth in secret and give the baby up for adoption. Abortion was rare, dangerous and illegal until 1974, four years after I graduated from high school, four years after several of my classmates found themselves “in trouble.” Being a nerd with no social life and hyper-protective parents probably saved me from that.

I got married two weeks after I graduated from college. If my ex hadn’t put a monkey-wrench into the baby plan, I’d be a grandmother now. Early in our dating life, he hustled me to the student medical center for birth control pills. Those pills were a disaster. They made me sick, fat and depressed. I tried various types of pills. On some, I bled almost all month long. Others caused giant painful bumps to break out on my legs. I experienced the mother of all yeast infections because I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t dare tell anyone I was having sex before marriage. But I didn’t get pregnant. What if I had been born just a few years earlier?

Shortly before the wedding, I switched to a diaphragm. Every time I bought the contraceptive jelly for it, I felt like everyone in the store was looking and judging. Even after I got married.

And yet, I had so many more options than my mother did. I don’t know if she had sex before marriage. I don’t want to know. I do know she and my dad used condoms to stop having children after they had my brother and me. My snoopy brother found them in a drawer, but we never discussed it. God no. For us, The Talk about sex consisted of one word: Don’t.

Birth control took away the fear of pregnancy, both in and out of marriage. Plus, because the times were changing, I was able to work as a newspaper reporter, doing work that men used to do. I was always in debt, but I could manage my own affairs. My mother, perhaps your grandmother, did not have that freedom. She lived in a world where men controlled women’s lives and women’s destiny was motherhood.

Things have changed so much. It’s good, right?

We have so many choices now. Sometimes that makes it more difficult, especially when we find partners who don’t feel the same way as we do about having children. It used to take some doing to prevent the babies from coming. Now we have to fight for the right to have them. It doesn’t seem fair. Or is it more fair than it ever was before?

What do you think about all this? How have things changed in your lifetime? How has the availability of birth control and abortion affected your situation? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

 

 

Which is worse, no kids or a dozen?

The novel I’ve been reading, A Place of Her Own by Janet Fisher, takes place in the 1800s. It’s based on the true story of a woman who came to Oregon by covered wagon and settled not far from where I live. The heroine, Martha, married at 15, has one baby after another, 11 in all. She’d probably have had more, but her husband died. I almost want to add “thank God.” He was an abusive SOB.

But that’s not my point. The story takes place in the 1850s and ’60s. Martha has no access to birth control, abortion doesn’t even occur to her, and there is no such thing as a vasectomy or tubal ligation. If you have sex–and her husband isn’t going to take no for an answer–you have babies. She spends the 21 years of their marriage either pregnant or nursing. Think about that. One baby after another, with no way to stop them from coming.

There comes a point in the novel where she has had two babies die in infancy and discovers she’s pregnant again. “I don’t want to have another baby,” she cries. She already has so many to take care of and she can’t stand the thought of losing another one.

Her husband treats her horribly, at one point beating her with a whip. She leaves him for a while and tries to divorce him, but discovers the laws at that time  allow him to take all of their seven living children away from her. So when he promises never to hurt her again, she goes back. She has two more babies.

Why am I telling you about this when you and I don’t have any babies at all? Think about how few choices women had back then, long before they earned the right to vote. When Martha, as a widow, went to buy land, the guy selling it preferred to deal with her 11-year-old son because he was male.

Only in recent times have we had any say about whether or not we would get pregnant and have babies or when we would have them. When I was born in the 1950s, abortion and birth control were not legally available. Nor did women have many career options. Most became wives and mothers. They started their families young, long before age-related infertility might be a factor. We never heard about spouses refusing to have children. I’m sure it happened but not nearly as often as it does now.

Today we have so many choices it’s frightening. We make those choices and then we wonder if we’ll regret them later, whether it be birth control, abortion, vasectomy, or committing our lives to someone who is not able or willing to make babies with us. In these days when divorce is common, we’re often the second or third spouse, and our partners have already created families with their exes. They’ve had their children, but we have not. They want us to be happy taking care of their children, but it’s rarely enough.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so many choices. Life was less complicated in the 1860s. But to be honest, I would no more want to have 11 babies and have two of them die than I would want to have none. Also, considering the lack of choices back in the 1800s (when my great-great grandmother had 13 children who lived), why would any of us let anyone else decide this most important life choice for us now?

What do you think about all this?

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Last week’s stepmom post has created quite a hot discussion. Take a look at https://childlessbymarriageblog.com/2017/01/12/he-already-has-his-kids-but-i-dont/.